This week, three more of us had the opportunity to visit the places where our fathers died. If last week’s visits had their logistical challenges, this week’s were marked by how remote they were. We spent hours and hours traveling down bumpy, dusty roads in a bouncy tour bus and a cramped van, but we urgently needed to get to these places and so took every bump and turn as it came.
Mike’s spot took us four hours to reach. The last two hours were down a dirt road with deep potholes and wild curves. Ron guided the bus driver the whole way, and in the final mile stopped him just short of the road’s end. We were as close to the river as we’d get, about 2.5 miles downstream from where Mike’s father fell in and was swept away in 1971. It was a short walk to a meadow. The river ran over flat rocks and seemed peaceful, just as it did on the day Mike’s father waded in. But even with the water level low, swirls on the surface gave clues to the strong current underneath. It was easy to imagine how fast the water could run in the rainy season.
Mike started by shuffling his feet and saying he was just a “dumb ole Aggie” so he probably wouldn’t sound profound. He also said he didn’t want to get emotional, but that when you get to a place like this, “it hits you like a ton of bricks.” Through guarded tears he spoke gently and beautifully. He talked about his daughter Jazgul and said he regretted most that his father never had the chance to meet her. He said he wished he could just sit down and smoke a cigar with his dad, and would leave one for him. And he said it would have been great to watch football and argue with his dad about which team, the Razorbacks or Texas A&M, was better. We left him a moment alone and when he got back on the bus, I noticed his eyes were bright. His face was smooth. I asked how he felt. He said it was like a 500 pound gorilla had been lifted from his shoulders. That brightness in his eyes hasn’t faded since.
The group split in two yesterday to get to Susan’s site and mine. It took Susan’s group five hours to get to the area of the Mekong River near the Cambodian border where her father’s helicopter went down. Two Vietnamese government officials, Mike, Patty and Susan all crammed into a small Toyota SUV along with filmmaker Jared. Luckily the roads were smooth and they made good time, especially when they were able to grab a barge to get to the other side and save 45 minutes of driving. Susan wanted to get as close to the river bank as possible to do her service and the group found a small dock that went right to the river’s edge. As Susan started to lay out her momentos on a banner—coins, keys, patches—people from the village came to see what they were doing. One woman saw the flowers laying on the banner and ran back to get a blue and white vase. She put the flowers in the vase but they kept falling over. She took them out again, wiped away the water, trimmed the stems so the flowers wouldn’t catch the wind, and set the vase upright again. Another villager brought out two glasses so that Susan could pour out a Coke, one of her father’s favorite drinks. Susan drank one and left the other. She poured out dirt from home and said prayers. She also asked the official from the area to collect some water from the river. At the edge the water was brown and covered with lotus blossoms, so the official rowed out in a boat and dipped an empty bottle into the river. He brought it to her and she noticed the water in it was clear, so poured some of it over her head and said a baptismal prayer. She’ll take the rest home.
My site was comparatively easy to reach, only two hours northwest of Saigon, but I expected obstacles getting to the exact spot where my father’s plane went down. My dad is listed as MIA because his remains were never recovered. The DPAA told me just weeks ago that they hoped to get to the site in 2016, and I worried that if I went too close, I might impede their investigation. Ron, Anthony and I had looked over Google maps based on the latest coordinates, and Anthony noticed two strange things about the area. My father’s plane went down 200-300 meters from a bunker that had been his target. The map showed an odd line of trees along the edge of a road, and exactly 200 meters from that, another set of trees that looked different from the rest. We thought we’d get to that first line of trees and just look toward the second, but when we got there, I wanted to step in a little closer, into the rubber plantation that edged the road. The official asked a local farmer if I could and he said yes so Ron and I walked in a bit and stopped on a path. I asked him which direction to look and he pointed. He said we were already about a third of the way there and suggested we go on. The path was clear, we had permission, and so I started to walk quickly, Ron reporting how close we were every few steps. He stopped me when his map said 200 meters and pointed in front of me. I looked and saw a crater. I asked Ron if its shape and size were natural and he said no, he didn’t think so. So I walked into it and sat in the center. That’s where I held my father’s service. I read messages from my sister and my mother and played a favorite song of my father’s, Greensleeves. Margaret, a fellow airman’s daughter, helped me read the poem High Flight, by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. I climbed out of the crater and left, a little lighter than before.
We’ve attended six funerals in the last ten days. It’s no wonder we’re cried out. But we’ve all come out the other side changed forever.